Sopore is a small township in Kashmir peculiar for two completely unrelated things. Fish and burial grounds. The place is populated along mossy grave yards. So you have the main marketplace – called Iqbal market [named after the poet-thinker Iqbal] – perched on a graveyard. The Sopore hospital and fire station sit atop old graves. The degree college too borders a cemetery. So amidst the dead, Sopore lives and breathes. Along with its famous fish.
In Sopore they will make you believe that Kadal tal-chi [fish netted just around/beneath the old bridge] are the tastiest. Kashmiris generally have a strong fascination for bridges. You could be called a Kadal-jinn [demon of the bridge] if you have a particularly threatening disposition. And perchance if the bridge is blown up [which occasionally happens] boatmen would then carry you to cross the river in small boats. Ofcourse they charge you for it. That is Kadal-tar [fare of the bridge] for you. Such old world charms!
Coming back to fish, you get the world’s best fish [that is what the locals believe and I mostly agree] in Sopore’s boisterous Gaadh Baazar [fish market]. Fisher folk, sell their Kashur Gaadh [Kashmiri fish] at exorbitant prices here. The fisherwomen are fierce. One has got to be very good at haggling or you could end up burning a huge hole in the pocket. You have to be alert and keep an eye on the scales too. [Not the fish scales but the weighing scales] And if you are lucky and get a good price and your scales are not tampered with, you can lay your hands on incredibly clean, fresh fish at Sopore’s very disorderly fish arcade.
At home the fish is painstakingly cleaned. Inside out. For hours. Till the fish is clean as a whistle. In Kashmir people can be very finicky about these things. Then they sit down to cook the fish. It is the most flat-out, ardent exercise you’ll ever experience. Spices are carefully sifted to be tossed into the pan, while the fish is being sautéed. Vur [a concoction of specially dried herbs] and other secret ingredients are religiously mixed at various stages of cooking. Haak [Collards] is added to compliment the fish. It resembles a mini-war effort. Under no circumstances can you afford to disturb the hash slinger.
For centuries Kashmiris have invited their sons-in-law for Gaadh bata [Fish food]. The cooked fish is believed to taste better the next day. Usually relished in winters, the super-spicy, aromic, flaccid, yummy fish is always served with hot white rice. Lot of it, actually. Just fish and rice. Nothing else. It is a dish fit for the kings. Not even a nuclear war between India and Pakistan can tear you from your plate of food.
And when it comes to fish, Sopore rowdily leads from the front.